The Pan-American Highway is a complex network of roads linking Alaska to Argentina, nearly 29,800 miles long – all but a 55-mile missing link, right in the middle, between Panama and Colombia.
The road has never been completed across the impenetrable Darien Gap.
Beyond the traffic and the skyscrapers of Panama City, the highway heads West towards Chepo and the forest. After two police roadblocks and about four hours along what is more of a bumpy country road than a motor way, the journey ends in Yaviza by the Chico River.
The Colombian border is still some 35 miles away, but from here travel is restricted to foot or cayuco, a dugout canoe. And Yaviza really feels like the border town itself. Traders and passengers from the whole region transit here. Yaviza has 2,000 residents and 20 bars.
“Cars come up to here, they can’t go any further”, says Virgilio Cabrera, as he stands on his cayuco, piling bags of sugar, flour, bottled water and gallons of oil to bring back to his village, four hours away. “It would be much easier for us to get our supplies if a road went all the way to our village.”
Panama has expressed concern about the risks of opening up the Darien Gap. The forest hides a unique biodiversity and also serves as a natural frontier against diseases and the Colombian armed groups and drug traffickers. But in the name of economic development, all that could change.
“All the Central American countries want it,” claims Yaviza’s Department Representative Jaime Henrique Loré, who is wearing a dusty ‘Martinelli Presidente’ baseball cap. “We can’t be the only country to oppose the road. Our president Martinelli is a man of vision, and also a man of money.”
Opponents believe that joining the two sides of the Pan-American Highway would bring an increase in human and drug trafficking across the continent as Panamanian armed forces already struggle to control this vast wilderness.
The police say that guerillas and traffickers get fresh food supplied, and even new recruits, from the villages in the forest, either through their good relationship with some villagers or by looting. Insecurity is an issue despite heavy border patrols. The forest is an easy place to hide.
“The guerillas come very close to here,” says Felipe Olea, a 60-year-old farmer. “A month ago, in the late afternoon, I was traveling on a cayuco and they were there, resting on the river shore, a lot of them. Yes, we are scared. When these people arrive, they take everything you have.”
It has been three years since the last section of the road was inaugurated from Meteti to Yaviza. And it has been a bitter experience for the indigenous leaders. They claim that the creation of jobs during road construction has not compensated for the deforestation along the road and the damage to their traditions.
“If the government wants to build the missing part of this motor way, things have to be done differently,” says Edilberto Dogirama, chairman of the Embera-Wounaan General Congress. “If the planning is improvised as we have seen in the past, we are against it, really against it. Totally. But if it is well planned, including the issue of security, then we would be happy to discuss it and see what benefit it could bring to our people. “
from Panama Digest contributor Alexis Masciarrelli